Sylvester Taku wants to see Africa rise and as the Managing Director of Mara Phones South Africa – manufacturers of the only made-in-Africa smartphones – he is perfectly positioned to catalyse the economic growth required for this to happen.
It is vitally important for Africa to have a smartphone brand manufactured on the continent Sylvester says. “In the previous industrial revolutions Africans were reduced to mere consumers. We want to actively participate in the fourth industrial revolution and the primary way we interact with the revolution is through our phones. It is therefore fitting that Africans not only produce smartphones, but also engage in the product development for these devices, which is exactly the space in which we operate.”
Originally from Cameroon, Sylvester, who completed his MBA at UCT’s Graduate School of Business in 2013, relocated to Johannesburg as a teenager in 1995 after his parents tragically died. “The head of my maternal family housed South African (political) exiles in his compound. I remember talking to them as a child and it’s from these interactions that I came to view South Africa as the centre of pan-Africanism, and wanted to come here,” he explains.
Later graduating in accounting from Wits, Sylvester intentionally sought out a smaller accounting firm to complete his articles, “In the smaller firms you get a greater diversity of experience, which is what I wanted as I’d noticed that a broad range of experience fast-tracked one’s progress in the profession.” Before his appointment at Mara Phones, he held a number of roles at well-known accounting firms. He worked for a year in his home country at PricewaterhouseCoopers then returned to South Africa to work for Ernst and Young. His five years there included involvement in the firm’s African Business Centre and an increasing focus on technology, media and telecoms. It was this experience that convinced the Group CEO of Mara Phones, Ashish J. Thakkar, to elevate him to head up the Mara Phones operations in South Africa; the company also has a factory in Rwanda. Mara Phones started operations in South Africa in October 2019 and has a staff of almost 200 people. The factory is located at the Dube Trade Port in Durban with a remote office in Johannesburg. Last year Sylvester and his team opened their first brick-and-mortar store, showcasing their smartphones at Maponya Mall in Soweto, amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The Maponya Mall Mara Phones Experience Store has been very successful since its launch.
Championing a made-in-Africa smartphone on the continent is no easy task. Importing many of the components for smartphones drives up manufacturing costs and are among the challenges Mara Phones faces, explains Sylvester. “Another challenge is the scarcity of electronics manufacturing skills in South Africa and Africa. We address these challenges by forming strong ties with institutions of learning to find near-skilled youths to train and develop. We also work closely with the Department of Trade and Industry to identify opportunities to localise the manufacturing of the components we need.”
Sylvester wants to be remembered as one who has made doing business in Africa a little easier.
Some of the ways in which he hopes to achieve this are to find and support more made-in-Africa products, actively engage African governments to reduce tariffs on intra-African trade and to try and speed up visa-free travel between African countries for business purposes.
“There are many challenges to doing business in Africa. But I have a real passion for the continent and want to do my part to see it develop to its full potential.”